First Person Narrators | How Far Can You Bend The Truth?

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers, For Readers

Are all first person narrators liars? I would submit that they are. As Mark Twain’s first-person narrator, Huck Finn, wrote, “ I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.”

First person stories and memoirs have one thing in common. Both use an “I” point of view; but memoirs purport to tell the truth.

Tom and Huck-first person narrator

Image from Open Clip Art via

What About First Person Narrators in Memoirs?

In memoirs the “I” narrator is telling the story as accurately as s/he can remember it. We all know, however, that bearing witness is a tricky thing. Memoirists are, essentially, bearing witness to events of the past. Sometimes, the long-ago past.

If you disagree, read Henry Kissinger’s autobiography or Hillary Clinton’s or Clarence Thomas’s. These politicians gloss over painful events in their lives. They “obfuscate” about matters of state. Celebrity memoirs are of the same ilk. We read them not for their literary quality, but to satisfy our curiosity.

Fame and First Person Narration

Forty of fifty years ago memoirs were penned by people who had lived adventurous or famous lives. Here, I’m thinking of Beryl Markham’s West With the Night (early woman pilot in Africa), Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (about the ex-pat writers in France), Ulysses S. Grant’s The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Civil War), Elie Wiesel’s Night (the Holocaust), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (about living the intentional life), or Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life.

These were not ghost-written biopics. The books’ literary qualities have made them endure. However, I would submit that the stories themselves are still “shaped narratives,” meaning that the authors selected which events to include.

Memoirs By Non-Famous People

A few years back memoirs written by ordinary people exploded in popularity. Frank McCourt, Dorothy Allison, Tobias Wolff, Maya Angelou, and Mary Karr (author of The Liar’s Club) pulled back the curtain on hidden dramas of abuse, poverty, and resilience. Now, many people want to tell their life stories. Why?

We want to understand the shape of our lives. What brought us to “this” point. We want our sacrifices to have meaning. We want to be the heroines and heroes, particularly if we have survived something terrible. Of course, we do. And we want to leave a legacy. But, as my grandma used to say when she caught me in a lie, “You’re shading the truth.”

Whether memoir or fiction, the storyteller is always putting a spin on the story.

So, how does this apply to fiction? Well, it applies to fiction because readers assume that first person narrators are telling the truth. Readers will also assume that the author is writing autobiographically. That’s because many readers don’t understand that authors make things up.

In Fiction It Is Okay to Lie?

Stories told in a first person make a certain kind of claim on the reader’s emotions. First-person stories ask the reader to stand in the shoes of an “I” narrator. Walk a mile in my shoes.

But what if the “I” narrator is quirky or weird? Do you think the reader might have more trouble cozying up? What if the narrator is an outright liar? What if readers very quickly pick up on those lies?

That’s a good thing for the story. It makes the reader feel smart. Readers will sit on the edges of their seats waiting for the next lie. If there’s a disconnect between what the narrator is saying and what the reader can figure out, then all the better. A character who lies to herself is an interesting character. A character who tells you right off that they’re stretching the truth becomes a more likeable character.

Beginning writers who aspire to write novels often find it easiest to write in the first person. But, fiction is not the same as memoir. You can invent, even when the germ of the story comes from your own life. And, sometimes, when you’re inventing, you will get closer to the emotional heart of the story you want to tell.

Margot Livesey’s First Person Narrator: Imaginatively Autobiographical

Let’s take a look at a passage by author Margot Livesey. Her novel, Eva Moves the Furniture, went through seven drafts. With each revision, she tried to find a way to handle autobiographical material, namely her mother’s early death and the fact that Margot had only scraps of information. What she did know was that her mother had worked as a nurse during World War I. She had been involved with a plastic surgeon, but he had dumped her.

Despairing of ever marrying and having a child, Margot’s mother moved to northern Scotland. She became a school nurse. People who knew Margo’s mother remembered the sounds from her room—furniture sliding across the floor in the middle of the night and doors slamming. These sounds began after her mother’s death. Margot said that in Scotland, people believe that loved ones return to complete unfinished business.

An Excerpt from Eva Moves the Furniture

Here’s how this very fine novel begins:

In 1551 the Italian surgeon Fiorovanti was traveling in Africa when he came upon two men fighting a duel. The cause is unrecorded: a camel? A woman? While Fiorovanti stood watching, one man sliced off the other’s nose. The fight continued, but the surgeon’s attention was elsewhere. He retrieved the flesh from the sandy ground and rinsed it in urine. As soon as the fight ended, he accosted the owner—winner or loser, again we don’t know—sewed the nose back on, applied balsam and bandages. The patient, convinced only that absurdity was being heaped upon his suffering, argued through these ministrations. But eight days later, when Fiorovanti removed the bandages, there was the man’s face, once again whole.

I do not know when or where Fiorovanti was born, but I was born in 1920 in the lowlands of Scotland, outside the town of Troon, less than thirty miles north of Alloway, where Robert Burns lived. It is a mild-mannered part of the country. The fields are fertile and predictable, with foaming hawthorn hedges and woods of beech, chestnut, and birch. Even as a little girl I judged the landscape inferior to the one I knew from stories, the fierce, dour Highlands where my mother had spent her childhood.
–Margot Livesey, EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE, p. 1 (Picador, 2002)

What I’d like you to notice about this passage is that the first-person narrator does not step from the shadows until the second paragraph. When the narrator speaks up, she gives us pictures of the setting. We will soon find ourselves immersed, and sympathetic to, the narrator’s plight and a small child’s lonely world.

In a sense, Margot’s purpose in this book was to recreate the mother she might have known. What she had to work with was the “I” voice of the narrator.

When the plot kicks in, magical things begin to happen. Fiction workshops might call this “magical realism.” Non-writers might say this is “lying.” I think it’s imaginative storytelling to expose a deeper truth: the enduring power of a mother’s love.

The Power of A Well-Told Lie: Mark Twain

The first person is a voice that allows a narrator to “tell the truth” while also telling a lie.

Ever since Mark Twain gave voice to Huck Finn, the “I” voice has been a favorite for autobiographically-based, coming-of-age novels. These are known as romans-a-clef. In a roman-a-clef the narrator’s life is presumably quite close to the author’s own.

It’s fun to speculate about how close Huck Finn’s life was to Twain’s. I’m guessing that many readers do just that. It’s what readers inevitably do when they meet an “I” narrator.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would civilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

–Mark Twain, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, p. 1

From Twain To Russell Banks

You can draw a direct line from Mark Twain to J.D. Salinger to Russell Banks. All three created fictional characters with unique, first person voices. The voices make the same claims on our attention as do memoirs. Twain’s, Salinger’s, and Banks’s narrators are teenagers. They’re keen observers of adult shortcomings. We’re rooting for them.

You’ll probably think I’m making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I’m not. Besides, a lot of the things that’ve happened to me in my life so far which I’ll get to pretty soon’ll make me sound evil or just plain dumb or the tragic victim of circumstances. Which I know doesn’t exactly prove I’m telling the truth but if I wanted to make myself look better than I am or smarter or the master of my own fate so to speak I could. The fact is the truth is more interesting than anything I could make up and that’s why I’m telling it in the first place.

Anyhow my life got interesting the summer I turned fourteen and was heavy into weed but I didn’t have any money to buy it with so I started looking around the house all the time for things I could sell but there wasn’t much….
–Russell Banks, RULE OF THE BONE, p. 1 (Harper Perennial, 1997)

“I” Narrators Ask Us To Believe Them

Do you also find a link between the voice of Banks’s narrator and and that of the narrator in Huck Finn? I do.

We’re up close and personal. Both boys are liars who will do what they please (or what they must to survive).

Is this a voice we trust? Do we want to stand in either boy’s shoes? No, but we want to read on. How much more effective this is than if the writer asked us to believe everything he said was true. (And, that’s what most of us do when we write stories in the first person.) We don’t explore the possibilities of bending the truth.

Image taken from page 29 of 'The Practical Elocutionist ... for school use, etc'

First person narrators stand before us to plead their cases. Readers will always have to decide whether the “I” narrator is fudging the truth or outright lying. Image from Flickr via The British Library

Joseph Conrad: A Fourth Example

Oddly, the more an “I” narrator claims to tell the truth, the less we’re inclined to fall for his or her version of events. If a narrator claims to be an expert, we begin to look for ways she’s not. Nobody likes a know-it-all.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Joseph Conrad. This time the first person narrator is an adult. Right away he cautions the reader not to trust him. Conrad is issuing a disclaimer. His narrator says he may not be the most accurate observer.

To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself, after the Russian custom, Cyril son of Isidor—Kirylo Sidorovitch—Razumov.

If I have ever had these gifts in any sort of living form they have been smothered out of existence a long time ago under a wilderness of words. Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person may be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.
—Joseph Conrad, UNDER WESTERN EYES, p. 11 (Penguin Modern Classics)

Does Conrad’s disclaimer make us believe him less? I think not. I fully believe he’s up to the job. I’m eager to discover who this Razumov is and why Conrad thinks this is such an extraordinary story that he must tell it, despite his (the narrator’s) deficits.

But even if a writer is fully able to invent a first person narrator who will tell a story either about himself or someone else, he or she may find that readers and editors are confused. When readers encounter an “I” voice, they jump to the conclusion that the author is writing a roman a clef—writing directly out personal experience. They don’t realize that, in fiction, the author can invent a narrator just as easily as the story itself.

What Is True and What Is Not?

Here’s an example of one writer’s experience.

A South African writer by the name of Tony Eprile–a man–sent a first-person story about a fat woman to a well known literary journal. He received a letter from the editor suggesting that he (the author of the story) look into bariatric surgery.

At the time I knew him, Tony weighed about 125 pounds. At 5’10”, he was not obese. His first name—Tony—ought to have clued the editor to the author’s gender. Besides that, in the first paragraph, Tony made sure the reader knew the narrator was a woman. The editor had made the common mistake of inferring that the narrator of the story was the same man who had licked the envelope and tucked the manuscript in the mail.

Tony accepted the editor’s suggestion about bariatric surgery with good humor, but his experience illustrates the dangers of the “I” viewpoint.

Whenever you write a first person story, most readers and some editors will automatically assume the book is based on your life. One day, you might receive a letter suggesting you get medical or psychiatric attention.

Conclusion

The first person point of view is a natural storytelling voice that draws the reader and narrator together. In a sense, it’s the most intimate of all the points-of-view an author has at her disposal. It’s intimate because the reader can peer inside the head of the narrator and listen to the narrator’s private thoughts. If you’re writing a first person story, play around with the point of view. See what happens if you let the narrator tell a lie or do something you’d never do.

For all its good points, telling a story with an “I” voice is way is a lot more complicated than beginning writers imagine. Expect that after your book is published, readers will ask you how much is based on your life. And what will you say to that? “If I’d wanted to write a memoir, I would have. This is fiction.”

What about your first person stories? Have you ever consciously made your characters lie or get things wrong? Please comment.


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